Deep Learning with JG Ballard:
“The death of the sunlight ... Of the Walls ... ”
by Mike Bonsall, originally published in Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 by Rick McGrath
The idea of text written by machines goes back as least as far as the invention of mechanical computing machines, when Ada Lovelace pointed out that if numbers could be manipulated by machine, then, of course, so could letters. The practical history of computer-generated literature is almost as long as the history of electronic computing itself. In 1952, the Ferranti Mark 1, the first commercial stored-program computer, was undergoing testing in Manchester. With the help of his friend Alan Turing, Christopher Strachey wrote a program for the Manchester computer — possibly as a gay provocation — which generated ironically romantic ‘love letters' with words chosen randomly from a list of salutations, adjectives, nouns, adverbs and verbs. The saccharine, or sometimes salacious, outputs of which would be pinned to the computer department notice board.
My interest in the aleatory possibilities of literature was further piqued when I learned that William Burroughs had collaborated with computer expert Ian Sommerville, who became his 'systems adviser' and sometime lover. The works Sommerville helped to produce in the ‘60s, some of which are reproduced in The Third Mind, were mostly straightforward random permutations of a handful of words e.g. I am that I am/am I that I am …
JG Ballard had his own 'systems adviser' in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the form of computer-science media-guru Dr Christopher Evans. They too were lovers — in fictional form only — in Ballard’s novel Crash; though Ballard later said of Evans " ... he became the closest friend I have made in my life". Although not reprinted since first publication, some of the output created with Chris Evans' help is similar to that of Sommerville's from earlier in the ‘60s – for example a repeating list of four letter words (including kiss and wife) that make up Love: A Print-out for Claire Churchill. Ballard later said "I asked [Chris Evans] to contribute to Ambit. We published a remarkable series of computer-generated poems, which Martin [Bax] said were as good as the real thing. I went further: they were the real thing."
Another Evans piece, from 1968: How Dr Christopher Evans Landed on the Moon, is a printout from an early text-based computer game, 'Apollo', also known as 'Lunar Lander'. This is a simple physics simulation of decelerating a lunar module to land safely on the moon. But the prosaic, mechanistic readout of velocities and burn rates is transformed into literature by Ballard's playful title turning it into an adventure story. A further piece from around this time is a printout from a 'sexual problems' expert system Dr Evans was working on to encourage frank answers by removing the human questioner.
Both these computer experts died in the ‘70s, tragically young, Sommerville at 36 and Evans at 48. It's tempting to imagine what other cybernetic avenues they might have encouraged Burroughs and Ballard to explore had they survived.
My own adventures in electronic literature, mostly kept at digital-ballard.com, have focused on re-working Ballard’s texts. I have restaged The Atrocity Exhibition as an infinite online cut-up, remodelled The Terminal Beach as an Interactive Fiction game, reanimated High-Rise as an architectural drawing, remapped Ballard’s locations as an interactive Google map, and modestly attempted to re-catalogue all of Ballard’s work in the massive Arte Útil concordance projects.
My latest work uses a ‘Ballard Artificial Intelligence’ to reverse-engineer a Ballardian text using an artificial neural network. Although neural networks have been postulated as computing tools since the 1940s, it is only in recent years that computers have developed sufficient speed to host powerful neural nets. Computer neural networks consist of multiple software emulations of neurons — such as make up the human brain — which are individually simple on-off machines. When connected in a large mesh these ‘neurons’ can influence each other in a way that encourages complex interactions and can produce increasingly realistic outputs.
Another recent breakthrough in such networks has been the software development of back-propagation — the ability of the outcome of one round of computation to alter the network that produced it and thus improve the next outcome. The resultant ‘deep learning’ is a term Ballard might well have appreciated. In the 19th century Andrei Markov provided the mathematical underpinning to predict the likely order of words in a sentence. My own samples of digital literature were 'authored' by a Recurrent Neural Network (torch-rnn) which creates sentences a single character at a time.
The first output below, was created by ‘training’ the network with the Ballard text The Atrocity Exhibition; at about 30,000 words, a very small sample in neural network terms. This sample is too small to produce readable results at high 'temperature' settings (i.e. high levels of originality), in torch-rnn. At low temperature settings many more correctly formed words are produced, but at the cost of a lot of repetition. This repetition led, I felt, to a distinctly poetic rhythm, hence the verse interpretation below, which I've enhanced by simply inserting line-breaks.
The death of the sunlight
of the walls
of the sexual
of the sexuality
of the deserted
the concrete as if
the stared to the car park
of the students
and the landscape of the car
for the series
of the passed the screen
of the studied the car park.
of the searched
the film and the concrete
and the sexual formed
a series of the steering
the strange of the searched
the sexual formed a sexual distance
and stared the patients and the hundred
as the sense of the sand of the sense
of the sense and sexuality.
The dreams of the sense
of the car to the sand
the sexual concrete and acceptive staring
at the sense of the sense
of the space
of the stared to the steering
an explored the concrete
and the sexual he was she was she was
the sense and been
the seemed to
the sense of the stared to the dead
and the white stared at the motorway
she was the concrete
and the rear
seemed the car park.
The stood by the stared
to the sexual deaths
of the series of his wither
the sense of the students
and the set
off an extracting
at the sense and for the car park.
The stood and the series
of the steering
the steel of the shouted
at the distance
in the screen of the sexual
as a sense of the steering
the sense of the sculpture
of the screen and the student
of the car park
of the seemed to the car park.
The sand of the pilot
and the sense of the stared
at the stared at the set
off the deserted
across the series of the shouted
at the sense of the students
and the apartment
in the sexual acts
of the sexual was
she was the helicopter
the rear the car formed
a contained the sexuality of
the sense of the film
and the contours of the sand
of the seemed to the sense
of the set off
an extracting at the sexual
formed the sexual
formed a sexual geometry
of the stared the concrete
and been the concrete
and the embankment
of the street
and rear the series
of the set of the car
to the sexuality
of the sexual concrete
The second output below, which I see as more nearly a piece of prose, is created from the input of all Ballard’s published books. At two million words, this is a better sample size and produced readable output at medium 'temperature', though this sample took sixteen days of flat-out computer processing to produce an output.
I find both texts fascinating for their unheimlich qualities. We come across a perfectly reasonable phrase and for a moment we could be reading a newly discovered Ballard fragment. But the illusion is short-lived. Are we trapped in the uncanny valley of computer-generated text? Yet the text draws us on, dream-like, nightmarish. We sometimes question our own judgement; is 'cataries ' a word? Are ‘well-parallenes’ real things? The output is amusing and grotesque in equal measure.
I'll leave the last word to Ballard's character Paul Ransom in his short story Studio 5, The Stars. The ex-poet, now addicted to his IBM Verse-Transcriber, muses:
"I suppose it's principally a matter of inspiration. I used to write a fair amount myself years ago, but the impulse faded as soon as I could afford a VT set. In the old days a poet had to sacrifice himself in order to master his medium. Now that technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there's no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile —"
'The surgeons of the Apollo was started to the light and the seat. 'I could
see that he was in the water and the next ten years all this with a decision
was always all the death.
The stern states had been convicted at the runway, and he had not seen the case — now and the deck of the bunk of the car and grass and the start and probably across the marshals. 'Mr Maxted's sense of the Metro-Centre was the second floor. The grass path to his blood of the end of the floor of his face. The streets and a few film and an arm with the steps and sharply and the concrete discovered the car.
'The start of the car?'
'Doctor? I said.
'I don't think there's a child. I was interested as they don't think you're any sign of a path to the posture. I had to be moved at the trailer of the universe from the station distinct to the air and can be a huge streets of the ground.
‘And you seem to see you to see the storm.'
'It's too many strange that seemed more than the engines.
'I'm not the real tension of the well-parallenes.
'I was a single of the conditions to the staircase of the former steering on the car and slipped the door of the side of the seat of the project. The street that moved the steps of the overhead.
I remembered the present the day of the entrance to the army beach.
'Soon he had been the first which he seemed to see them.'
'I was always a steering car and the most of the street and the forest was the rest of the car in the barrage.
As the street of the threatened fire of the old man and the road from the steps of the water and refused and recoded to the darkness.
'I'm sounded on the consultants of the shadow from the last light, he had been to the collection of the water and the starts and made him the sand window, and a window and set off him in the sounds of the air and a strange wall came to the last first concerned by the barrel of the runway. 'The ship of the mountain of the memory of the Chinese surface and seemed to see them again.
I had a continuous control at the car. 'Sanders in the cataries of the metal glance of the barricades and water and sounded by the streets and stared back to the cloud of the animals of the old man and the street.
'He was a dark ship to the surgeon like a few minutes in the prisoners.
The station of the shore, and the international strange soldiers of the screen plants she was continued and lay to the first time.
The face and the security and scanned the streets and probably and not to read the car.
'The deck of the present and the start of the deserted strange and the staircase was a complex of the most hand, and then stared at the residents of chair and the wardrobe of the collar of the side of the broken between the state of the street seat.
I was the sand away the water below the friends.
'The seat of the interior of the continuous police is something. The south of the water that had been seemed to be as she had strong behind the girl to the ground.
The house who had been grassed a second bedroom.
At the sunlight the side of the motorway destroyed the blood and the artained body of the face and the steel to the engine confident the rest of the sight of the court, since the paradise and the breathing of the steps and the front of the silent passenger.
'I asked that they were the conscious confidence and the paradise control of the shoulders.
A party floor and sense and the signal hands and closed as the first mind.
'What she said. The town and a search of the bathroom of front of the bones.
'As the police constructions had forgotten the rest of the same car.
I stepped out the darkness and succession of the sunlight, and the street of the steps of the surrounding and shower and set off in the desk.
The war straight beside the steps of the bank to the conditioning to the waves of the bright shower engine and her skin of the first time and stared at the cold bed and moving at the car as if the great and marked the walls and another beaches of the country of the country of the air.
'It's a ground of the shallow party of the first time in the sunlight, but he was the expedition of the computers were strongly despite the Chinese start was a single of the water flashed by the started out of the same and a few minutes that had slipped for the most entire right of the streets of the court.
'I'd stay the air.
'What are you are the beach, and the afternoon stopped and clearly beyond the same minutes were a strange screen, and the station that seemed to provoke the steering streets and set of the air staring at the studio groups of the deserted street.
I still started the streets of the staircases and distracted by the charge of the staircase of the first side of the air and police ready to calm like a world of the house of the air.
A state-off of the steps of the real pervance of the seat suit and happened to the control of his apparent death of the concrete deserted streets of the darkened death of the street and stared at the deserted silent windows and the human canopy.
She was a programme with the seat of the attempt to call the floor of the party of the station of the surrounding death. The surface of the image of the bridge.
'Paul had been seen the message and dissolving here?'
'What do you think you're only the car staring.'
'They're the surgeons and passing the sunlight, or he had probably stayed at the streets of the film and strong in the man to the more shoulder than the first of the sea.
'What do you think it something seems to the clouds of surrealist people was a beautiful close to the entire warm and the suitcase.
As I watched the crime of the other sheet for the last intruder of the walls.
The most personal books and light the state of his shoulder and the last of the balcony strain and the occurred shower of an air.
'I want to be building.
I'm sure that I could see that his eyes moved in the silence of the surface of the distant shoulders.
Many of the old man with the air and the companion was the start stores.
'I hope the past strange glass and stepped by the sound that the store of the sun.
'I think I saw himself when he could see the shadows.
'I could be say the staircase and playing out of the stream of the Mallory, the house in the driver and the assault and the house to the more than the terrace of the past the seat of the shot seemed to be here.
I seemed to start to the sun.
The station of the water was an almost stream of the car to the silver station of the transforming of the streets of the first time.
'It's a man and the companion of the floor of the sun.
'It's a side of the seat of the two months and explosions of the first that the deck of bottom window and seemed to hear the camera with the world of his way.
He was to be a place of the ground in the dark suitcases.
He was still alone at the water